It is a well-known fact that London’s housing supply is not meeting demand. The city needs for nearly 50,000 new homes to be built every year until 2035; last year the number of new homes completed was just shy of 25,000.
There are many reasons why London’s housing market is not delivering, so let’s hone in on one of them: opposition from local residents. Across London there are scores of locally run campaigns, set up by residents who fiercely oppose plans for to development their neighbourhoods.
So why do people oppose new development in their area? The typical response is to dismiss them as “NIMBYs” – an acronym which stands for “not in my back yard” – bent on preventing change. But this overly simplistic “NIMBY” narrative isn’t helping anyone; nor is it helping London to tackle its housing crisis.
For our latest report Stopped: Why People Oppose Residential Development in their Back Yard, we interviewed residents, planners and developers. We identified seven main reasons why people oppose new developments:
In a growing city where the underground, bus and rail services are already stretched, residents fear that an increase in population will put strain on local services – particularly roads, public transport and healthcare.
One leader of an outer London borough told us: “I already have people who can’t get on the train at 6.30 in the morning going into London. Their view is: if I build more housing, how the hell are they gonna get to work in the morning?”
The complexity of the planning system, and the vulnerability of development to the economic cycle, has led to a decline in trust between residents, developers and local authorities. This makes communication and negotiation between the three groups more difficult.
As one developer put it: “If there’s a policy, people don’t understand why local authorities don’t stick to it… That’s why communities are as angry with their local authorities as they are with us.”
Put simply, many Londoners simply do not believe that the local authority will act in the interest of residents.
Social psychology has long suggested that people identify with their own group and will take action if its identity is threatened by outsiders. Our research suggests that objections to new housing are sometimes as much about new residents as about the houses they will live in.
Locals fear that incomers will dilute the existing sense of community; “These yuppies breed like rats,” as one resident put it.
Residents’ objections are often rooted in the fear that new development will change the character or identity of the place they call home, or will simply be of too‑poor quality. That’s because people come to have close connections with the area in which they live. In the same way that a home is more than a house, a place is often more than just a location.
Elected politicians provide an important democratic check on development. But we found examples of planning debates being hijacked for alternative agendas, or being used as a political football.
One director of planning said: “If we did not have the local MP whipping up opposition to the planning application, we would have gone through without much opposition.”
Tokenistic and superficial engagement often leads to outright anger. A West London resident told us: “Developers change a couple of windows and hope that we will get tired.”
When people feel powerless they tend to protest, and it is no different when residents feel ignored by planners and developers.
Residents also fear the noise and safety impacts from construction. In some areas of London development is so intense that construction has begun to feel like a permanent feature of daily life.
As one councillor explained to us: “There is always something going on: trucks going up and down; the roads are muddy; bits of pavement are cordoned off with the latest development hoardings; the noise. It’s just constant here.”
Town planning always involves trade‑offs and balancing the interests of different groups, and some communities’ opposition to new housing is deep‑seated and hard to shift. But offering someone a new playground when they are worried about the disruption construction will bring is not get you anywhere.
That’s why developers and local authorities need to invest more energy and time in understanding the causes local opposition, before trying to resolve them. Maybe then we’ll be able to accommodate London’s next phase of growth.
Jo Corfield is communications manager at Centre for London. You can download the full report here.